First-Aid Approach Tackles Mental Health Stigmas

Aug 22, 2014

Citizens put together a puzzle to test how well they remember the steps to offering mental health first aid.
Citizens put together a puzzle to test how well they remember the steps to offering mental health first aid.
Credit Rebecca Huntington

Mental health. It's a topic that can be hard to talk about. So the National Council for Behavioral Health has taken a cue from successful CPR and first aid programs and designed a similar training to help everyday citizens know how to respond in a mental health crisis.

A half dozen Jackson community members are gathered in a classroom in the basement of St. John's Medical Center. Their instructor, Adam Williamson, has handed out poster-sized paper and markers and asked them to draw a picture of anxiety.

“This is just my very simple representation of a very frayed and harried person.”

Tanya Mark runs a company that coaches clients in wellness and nutrition. She decided to take this 8-hour training after getting a not-so-subtle hint from one of her clients, who she was helping with weight loss.

“And he happened to pull out a booklet of information on the Community Counseling Center and he specifically opened it up to one page. “

That one page described Mental Health First Aid, a program that teaches people how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness. Mark is now one of about 100 people in Jackson and the surrounding area to participate in the program, offered through the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center. Center Executive Director Deidre Ashley says the program is spotlighting a problem that's a lot more common that people realize.

“One in four people are dealing with some sort of mental health issue so it's very common. A lot of people will not seek services because of the stigma that's attached to it.”

By modeling the training after CPR and First Aid, Ashley says program aims to make average people feel more comfortable when dealing with mental illness.

“It's not a clinical training so it's not expecting people to handle things that they're not equipped for. It's really just to give you that basic awareness of what you're seeing and how to help them get to where they need to go.”

And that, Ashley says can promote early detection and intervention, which can avoid a bigger crisis later. In Wyoming, counseling centers have pooled resources to train instructors, who are now training citizens statewide. So far, some 20 instructors have been trained. And that included Jackson counselor and therapist, Adam Williamson, who is teaching this class.

But when you look at schizophrenia, say a neighbor gets diagnosed with schizophrenia, are you, you know making the casseroles, are you offering to babysit their kids while they go to their doctors appointments.

Williamson is passionate about correcting misperceptions. In class, for example, he stresses that mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety disorders can be just as or more disabling than physical diseases, such as diabetes. He says the training also opens up a healthy discussion about psychosis.

“One of the reasons why there's a stigma is because, in my mind, the media oftentimes will portray psychosis as being very dangerous or something that we want to avoid or stay away from or something that we can't help with.”

He wants to make it clear that citizens can help. Williamson has trained mostly professionals, who may encounter a mental health crisis on the job. But participant Amy Russian says she took the class simply as a community member interested in learning more about the topic.

“I think this course would be helpful for anyone whether you're just a general-interest participant or you have a professional reason to do so. “

Tanya Mark said it made a big impact on her. “One of the biggest things that I did learn today is to be able to listen.”

Mark added that the training offered a rare opportunity to have a conversation about an often hidden subject.